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Antebellum Black Ethnology - THE ORIGINS OF BLACK ETHNOLOGY

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Antebellum black ethnology arose as a challenge to mainstream ethnology, the nineteenth-century “science of the races.” Most prevalent in the United States, the field of ethnology emerged in the 1830s and 1840s as white American scientists first began to study anatomy, craniology, and human development. At the time, human development was still understood in a religious framework, and these scientists sought to reconcile racial difference with biblical history in a way that led to new questions about the unity of the human family, and about the place of people of color within it. Now often known as “scientific racism,” this work focused on racial differences, and it invariably classified blacks and other people of color as inferior and innately distinct from white people. Accordingly, American ethnology, as put forth by white authors, lent support to proslavery apologists such as Josiah Nott (1804–1873), who drew on its arguments for black inferiority to support the perpetuation of slavery. Black Americans, however, countered with ethnological arguments of their own.

Antebellum black ethnology defended the status of black people in the human family and the scriptures, stressing that all the races of humanity descended from a shared ancestry. Among the nineteenth-century blacks who wrote and spoke about ethnology were a number of well-known figures such as Frederick Douglass (1817– 1895) and Martin Delany (1812–1885), as well as scores of more obscure black thinkers.


In addressing ethnology in the 1850s, Delany and Douglass joined an already well-established tradition of black racial self-defense. Published African-American defenses of the capacities of the black race date back to the eighteenth-century, when African-Americans first confronted published arguments for black inferiority. Among the earliest arguments they encountered came from Thomas Jefferson. Writing in Notes on the State of Virginia (1789), Jefferson “advanced, as a suspicion only, that blacks whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time, are inferior to whites in the endowments of body and mind” (p. 262). Jefferson’s speculations were soon answered by an African-American contemporary named Benjamin Banneker (1731–1806), a self-educated former slave who achieved considerable renown as a mathematician, astronomer, and surveyor. In a public letter to Jefferson written in 1792, Banneker stressed that “we are all of the same human family” and implored the founding father to “embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false opinions and ideas, which so generally prevails with respect to us” (Nash 1990, p. 178). Jefferson’s response to Banneker was cordial, but his views seem to have remained the same. In a private letter to a friend, Jefferson wrote “I have a long letter from Banneker, which shows him to have a mind of a very common stature indeed” (Bay 2000, p. 17).

Jefferson’s negative assessment of the capacities of the black race would be increasingly widely supported in the nineteenth century. Antiblack thought proliferated in both the North and South in the early decades of the nineteenth century, as the egalitarian spirit of the Revolutionary era ebbed and slavery became ever more entrenched in the South. Among southerners, theories of black inferiority were used to defend slavery from the small but active group of northern abolitionists who began to challenge the morality of slavery. Meanwhile, in the North, blacks achieved the freedom mandated under the Revolutionary-era gradual emancipation laws, only to find themselves despised by many northern whites. As the North’s free black population burgeoned, whites there expressed little enduring support for African-American emancipation and quickly came to view the poverty and lack of education common among free blacks as evidence of the limitations of their race. Black ethnology thus had its beginning as African Americans mobilized to defend themselves from critics in both the North and South.

Such self-defenses became ever more necessary as the nineteenth century progressed. By the 1820s, the traditional environmentalist understanding of racial differences as the product of the distinctive climates and environments that nurtured the world’s different peoples had begun to give way to new questions about human unity—and about whether all humans really descended from the same ancestors. In an era when the transmission of physical traits from generation to generation was still something of a mystery, and when the time span covered by the scriptures was still thought to record the entire human history, environmentalism posed a number of scientific conundrums when it came to explaining racial difference. The most mysterious had to do with the brevity of human history: How had human beings developed such divergent physical characteristics over the few thousand years covered in the scriptures? Human physical characteristics did not change all that rapidly from one generation to the next, no matter what the influence of climate was. In the 1830s and 1840s these issues were taken up by the American School of Ethnology, a group of prominent American scientists led by Samuel Morton (1799–1851) of Philadelphia, who would ultimately argue that the races of humanity were the product of polygenesis, or separate creations.

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over 7 years ago

well im having the time of my life studing the orgins of black ethnology it gives me a since of perpose we need to keep studing as a people so we can stand and anser others when asked these things like i just learend that thanksgiving was not brougth here by the pilgrams it origenated from the indains long before they came here also , i never knew the true meaning of thanksgiving until now see in 1863 presdent licion sgined the the amansapsation proclamation that freed 5 millon slaves thus giving blacks men woman & children something to celibrite .